Sackerson’s newest production A Brief Waltz in A Little Room poised for new immersive audience experience

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Famous or unhistoric, the individual embodies a convoluted, mysterious existence. Fortunately but stubbornly so, we have finally given up our allegiance to the grand ‘great man’ style narrative that took hold in the 19th century. We all have our eccentricities, secrets, conflicts, fears, shames and yearnings – each capable of transcending the mundane days or destroying the artifice we construct diligently to preserve and to survive Darwinian realities.

A quarter of a century ago, Thirty Two Short Films About Glenn Gould demolished the conventions of telling the story about one of the modern era’s most gifted interpreters of Bach’s keyboard music – the Canadian pianist Glenn Gould (1932-1982). Directed and written by François Girard, the film starred Colm Feore as this most eccentric artist, who gave up public performances and became excruciatingly meticulous in his studio recording work. The film’s vignettes open a path that eschew the typical biographical treatment. One scene is at a truckstop where he’s eating and absorbing the conversations around him. He loves ketchup. He loves the music of Petula Clark. He is a hypochondriac. He acts the enigmatic role in any media interaction. Some critics did not like the film, fearing that it emphasized the personality cult surrounding Gould over his musical legacy. However, watching the film illuminates for us the artist Gould in a more accessible intimacy than he would ever have dared imagined when he was alive.

A Brief Waltz in a Little Room: 23 Short Plays about Walter Eyer. Sackerson. Photo Credit: Ashley Thalman and Ultraviolet Studios.

The irony is that people do enjoy trying to discover what really lies at the state of mind in the famous person as well as those individuals with whom they are most intimate. How do we then connect or understand the people in our lives who are not famous?  Or, more importantly, how do we confront and deal with our own convoluted mystiques, especially if we are tempted to lead double lives? And, do we dare being honest when the public standards of the community and society upon which we depend for our social essence and material livelihood demand a compromise not of our own choosing?

Meet Walter Eyer, a forty-something Mormon man of familiar circumstances and conventional means but also who is embroiled in his own identity crisis. In one of its most significant forays into new realms of theatrical expression and staging, the Sackerson theater company will begin Aug. 23 the premiere run of its latest production: A Brief Waltz in a Little Room: 23 Short Plays about Walter Eyer.

The concept for Sackerson’s newest show springs in part from the concept of 32 Short Films but more so from the core adventurous instincts of the company’s trio of creators – Morag Shepherd, Dave Mortensen and Alex Ungerman – to highlight theater in spaces different and far from the traditional proscenium and performance stage. This new show is being mounted with Umbrella Theater Company and additional support through the Utah Arts Alliance (UAA) and the Salt Lake City Arts Council.

The production’s setting will be in a hallway lined with doors leading to 10 tiny rooms, located in the back of the Urban Arts Gallery of the Utah Arts Alliance at The Gateway. Each show is limited to 10 audience members, a maximum that will be strictly adhered to throughout the production run (scheduled currently through Oct. 5). Each of the 10 rooms contains a scene in which audience members will elect to enter in randomized order.

Thus, this unique arrangement gives each audience member and performance their own experience in creating an immersive portrait of Eyer. There are two acts in the play so the potential permutations for how individual experiences of this show will emerge are virtually countless.

Sackerson’s audacity emanates through its process. For its 2018 show Hindsight, which set a romantic story in the context of a walking tour through downtown Salt Lake City’s open spaces, Ungerman scouted our locations and walked the route to find eventually the best option for the play to unfold, scene by scene. Also, in 2018, as Matthew Ivan Bennett noted in a review published at The Utah Review, “the production of Etiquette I saw—or, rather, participated in—took place at the Watchtower Café on State Street in broad daylight. Without actors. With no audience. But not without a script.”

A Brief Waltz in a Little Room: 23 Short Plays about Walter Eyer. Sackerson. Photo Credit: Ashley Thalman and Ultraviolet Studios.

Sackerson was looking to “build a different show” that could expand upon the concept underlying a production performed in 2016 at the Great Salt Lake Fringe, The Worst Thing I’ve Ever Done. That show featured a mobile theater box with just enough space for an actor and a single audience member with content developed from six short plays by three local playwrights.

For this latest show, Mortensen toured various locations around the city and then, with the help of UAA’s Derek Dyer, he discovered the dressing rooms in the back of the organization’s gallery space at The Gateway.

“Once we found the space, we talked about the story,” Shepherd adds. Shepherd and Mortensen Skyped with Ungerman, who now lives in Birmingham, Alabama, to develop the concept about the paradoxes of ideas and communication that go with the struggles to deal with ourselves and our lives honestly along with the implications of living a double existence. Shepherd, Bennett and Shawn Francis Saunders wrote the 23 scenes: 10 moments for the first act, 10 moments for the second act – with the order to be selected randomly by individual audience members for each performance – and three scenes to complete the whole (opening, interlude and closing).

The scenes, running an average of three minutes each, comprise a spectrum of theatrical experiences that command each audience member’s random choice and instructed interaction. Three rooms have scenes with an actor present. Other rooms have a voice over or elements that prompt the audience member to engage in a task or activity. The rooms represent various spaces inside Eyer’s home and elsewhere. The scenes encompass Eyer’s life, including his childhood days.

As Shepherd notes, “for this play, it doesn’t look like the traditional script.” There are defined monologues in a few instances and prompts for improvisation. At moments, there seems to be no boundaries in terms of the theatrical experience but in other instances, there still are some semblances of a boundary that do ground the play’s prevailing abstract randomness. The realities that do occur likely will strike close to home in many instances. The stimuli in some rooms are formidable while in others are more subtle. As a trigger warning, Sackerson advises audience members that one scene involves conversion therapy. Also for those who might suffer claustrophobia, the rooms are small spaces (measuring six feet by eight feet), some of which either will be dark or dimly lit.

To say much more about the content ahead of the premiere would be a disservice to the creative premise involved. It is designed to be as close to a pure one-to-one theatrical contact experience as could be imagined. Shepherd says it comprises mosaic structures, which makes the 32 Short Films comparison at least partially enlightening. There will be double casts for this 90-minute production, given that there will be eight performances each weekend: two on Thursdays at 7 and 8:30 p.m. and three each on Fridays and Saturdays at 6, 7:30 and 9 p.m. This means only 80 audience members will be able to see the show during any given weekend of the production run.

Actors include Robert Scott Smith, Brenda Hattingh, Claire Stucki , Emily Nash, Holly Fowers, Jesse Nepivoda and PJ Volk. Joining Shepherd and Mortensen as directors will be Jamie Rocha Allan, who is now based in the U.S. after completing the master of fine arts degree in theater directing at Birkbeck College in London. Designers for the rooms include Cara Pomeroy, Adam Day, Brookelyn Morgan, Dan Evans, Heather Paulsen, Iris Salazar, Madeline Ashton, Sophia Luker and Spencer Potter.

Tickets for the performances are available through the Sackerson website. As audience size is limited for each performance, Sackerson advises individuals to purchase tickets for desired dates and times as early as possible. Additional performances may be added throughout the run, depending upon demand. Occasionally the company will offer a performance in which any audience member can receive one or two tickets free. This will be announced with a discount code for each opportunity.

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